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In Black & White: The Women (Pt 3)

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

WOMEN AND THEIR SEXUALITY IN THE NEW FILM. By Joan Mellen. Horizon Press. 255 pages. $4.95 (in paperback).

Much of Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film has been previously printed in magazines ranging from Ms. to Film Quarterly. Although “substantially revised or enlarged upon and integrated within the thesis and concerns” of the current work, these articles-turned-chapters remain pretty much discrete essays, thematically united only by Mellen’s underlying (more accurately, overbearing) political persuasions. Catholic in her blanket denunciations of bourgeois anti-feminism in the cinema, she indicts Cuban and Chinese cinema, foreign and independent filmmakers, as well as that stock villain Hollywood, for “retrograde” contributions to contemporary film. Whether capitalist or socialist in impulse, current filmmakers, consciously or not, are out to portray women as subservient or sexually and spiritually alienated objects of male brutalization. But it’s the capitalists who are lambasted most by Mellen’s humorless forays into political aesthetics: “a capitalism in moral decline” prevents America from producing movies about self-sufficient liberated women while, in general, bourgeois society can only condition its women (and its filmmakers) deeper and deeper into social and sexual decadence—and any meaningful rapprochement between the sexes is doomed in “a capitalist era incapable of human relations.” Mellen’s manifesto lacks even the bite of fanaticism; it reads like some dry-as-dust tract a newly politicized, deadly serious Radcliffe senior might have written 40 years ago when most intellectuals worthy of the name were hailing Marx as messiah and communism as a universal panacea.

Mellen can’t see movies for her bourgeois-baiting: over and over she attempts to sterilize and desiccate richly conceived and executed films so as to fit them into her bell jar of bourgeois sins and excesses. If Hitchcock in his characteristically comic perversity has Jon Finch’s estranged wife in Frenzy (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) run a marriage counseling bureau with Good Housekeeping competence, and counterpoints her incantatory prayers against the rapist’s (Barry Foster’s) rhythmic “LovelyLovely …,” Mellen’s party line demands that complexity become simpleminded male chauvinist piggery: “In Frenzy the independent woman who runs her own business is raped and strangled so savagely that her eyes pop.” Not only does Mellen overindulge in these pithy little reductions toward (and beyond) absurdity—her humorlessness and critical didacticism deprive her of the ability to differentiate between better and lesser films. She criticizes all on one (political) plane, without taking note that one film is aesthetically superior to another. Thus, she lumps Tina Balser (Diary of a Mad Housewife) with Buñuel’s Séverine (Belle de jour) “as one version of the sexually typical modern woman.” In a tract, maybe, but not up there on the silver screen. No participant in Buñuel’s densely surreal mise-en-scène could possibly have anything in common with the pathetic caricature that is Frank Perry’s notion of an oppressed and frustrated modern woman. Just because each of these women is sexually incompatible with her mate is small cause to speak of a Frank Perry in the same breath with Luis Buñuel. But as long as Mellen can lockstep along spouting slogans, what possible relevance can the dynamics of real moving pictures have to her critical perspective? Read her exegesis of Up the Sandbox and you’ll be hard pressed for some time to uncover the minor fact that the film is a comedy (or means to be), so relentlessly does Mellen ignore jokes and satirical sendups in favor of dead-serious explication of the film’s antifeminist message—without at any time “placing” the film aesthetically.

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In Black & White: The Women (Pt 2)

[Originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

POPCORN VENUS: Women, Movies & the American Dream. By Marjorie Rosen. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. 416 Pages. $9.95.

Marjorie Rosen begins her fat (416 pages) study of women, movies and the American Dream by simultaneously putting down the cinema’s penchant for illusion and setting up the silver screen as a mirror in which “society’s porous [sic] face” may be exposed—thereby illustrating the main premise of Popcorn Venus, that movies can do anything and everything, but are admirable for practically nothing. Predictably, Rosen exhibits her critical credentials by nostalgia-tripping, sharing in a manner mostly maudlin her cherished cinematic memories and illusions, all couched in the confessional style of an ex–closet (or ex-prom) queen. But Rosen’s seen the light, so to speak, and has written a book which, more than anything else, seems to represent an attempt to exorcize all those seductive dreams spun out of movie-theater darkness by means of a holy war on behalf of cinematically wronged womankind.

Rosen’s weaponry includes a familiar array of selfrighteous clichés and stylistic ploys, the usual arsena1 of the writer who’s got a Cause but hasn’t a clue as to what constitutes good writing or critical fair play, and lacks sufficient knowledge of the enemy to even pitch a significant battle. Fundamentally, her pathetic (and self-aggrandizing) fallacy centers on the notion that Hollywood, movie moguls, men have engaged in an ongoing, conscious conspiracy against women since movies were first invented. Time after time, Rosen conjures up images of smoke-filled backrooms in which sinister plots were hatched by “Hollywood” to further subjugate or degrade women. That Hollywood (a place, not a person), at any given time, consisted of diverse elements, conforming and dissenting modes of direction, acting, even production, never seems to occur to her, in much the same way a freshman English student never seems to wonder about the real identity of that convenient scapegoat “Society.” Thus:

“For the men making movies in the twenties, ridicule (ergo, humor) shielded them and their masculine audiences from inevitable feminine demands for equality, social and otherwise. It squelched a treacherous usurping of their positions in the boudoirs and boardrooms, in the factories and on the campuses. Since the female uprising had to be put down, what a pleasant discovery that humor was at least as effective a method as pious moralizing.” (page 127)

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In Black & White: The Women (Pt 1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]

FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. By Molly Haskell. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc. 416 pages. $10.

Too often, one of the nicest things about having a Cause is that it provides cookie-cutter categorizations for almost every occasion. Human beings can be swiftly shuffled into suits of fascism, racism, male or female chauvinism, or whatever other convenient –ism lies at hand. Given the proper brand of cookie cutter, one can avoid confronting practically anything on its own terms—or in terms which stubbornly transcend or evade easy compartmentalization. The world becomes a neater place, less cluttered with complexities and nagging ambiguities when the brandished talisman of a single point of view sends all of disorderly reality scurrying into a series of carefully labeled cubbyholes.

Critics of the arts find cookie cutters particularly helpful in their craft. Art, you know, has that nasty habit of bursting the seams of the most rigorously contrived critical straitjackets—so much so that it’s still a sneaking suspicion of mine that the best response to a work of art is an eloquent silence. Film critics are not immune to the cookie-cutter syndrome—quite the contrary. The German film historian and theoretician Siegfried Kracauer was already drawing on a time-honored set of assumptions when he laced his tome on the cinema, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, with variations on a monolithic theme, that being the motion picture camera’s absolute lust for reality and concomitant abhorrence of the fantastic or surreal, anything but the bare, unvarnished Truth. (So much for Méliès and his successors!) It didn’t require much of a critical leap to arrive at the notion that the masses, the salt of the earth, had cornered the market on reality and truth. Social consciousness, documentary verity, became the sine qua non of the great film for many commentators.

Whatever the theory, the best kind of critic approaches a film with an open mind, a willingness to allow its reality to resist the framework of his critical parameters. The bad critic loves his cookie cutter more than that which it seeks to contain and will ruthlessly shape and name the work under discussion to fit the Procrustean bed of his theory. Example: Several years ago, in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael attacked four films—Dirty Harry, The Cowboys, Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orangefor their unwarranted and immoral use of violence. Once Kael started wielding that cookie cutter of hers, whole arms and legs of cinematic reality were amputated, discarded as irrelevant; plot and character were distorted, reshaped so as to support her point of view.* On the other side of the fence, auteurists are not always exempt from such solipsism: nondirectorial contributions to a film may be lopped off and ignored so that the lineaments of a distinct and all-encompassing directorial personality may emerge in highest relief. God knows it’s an ongoing battle to approach anything or anyone in that state of vulnerability and receptiveness that permits, even invites, the Other to operate autonomously, to surprise us with its own unique reality. So much safer to go armed with a quiver full of preconceptions with which the most recalcitrant of realities may be “fixed with a formulated phrase.”

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The Orson Welles Bookshelf

There are more published books on Orson Welles than on any other film director past or present.

The above statement is based on my own anecdotal, far-from-exhaustive and thoroughly unverified research, mind you and yes, it’s possible that Alfred Hitchcock tops him (if so it’s a close call), but why let the details get in the way of a dramatic statement? Welles certainly didn’t. Maybe that’s one reason for so many books—there’s so much myth behind the man.

Orson Welles, reading

There’s also so much career behind him. Welles made his name in theater and radio as a director, writer, producer and actor before coming to Hollywood, and he had a fascination with complex, contradictory characters who shaped their public images. His debut feature was built on the struggle to find the “key” insight to explain the character and motivation of a public figure and discovering a multiplicity of facets. Welles himself spun fictions around his own story, creating an aura of myth around the “boy wonder” genius that was taken for fact by many critics, while Hollywood (through gossip columnists and trade papers) created its own story: the “failed” genius who defied the system and was brought low by his own hubris. For most of his life, writers were content to print the legend(s), but there was is grist for multiple takes on his life and art in separating fact from fiction alone, never mind challenging clichés and preconceptions that have settled into common knowledge.

Now I should confess that I am somewhat obsessive when it comes to Welles. I own more than fifty books—biographies, studies, monographs, scripts, essay collections—on Welles, and that’s far from a complete accounting. For the vast majority of folks interested in delving deeper into the life and career of Welles, however, one book will suffice, at least as a starting point. The question is where to start?

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In Black & White: gawlDurgnat

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

THE STRANGE CASE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK, or The Plain Man’s Hitchcock. By Raymond Durgnat. MIT Press. 429 pages. $15.00.

For me, Raymond Durgnat has become, over a period of years, The Man You Love to Disagree With. Not that he doesn’t often strike exactly home, or express wonderfully well what oft was thought. It’s just that he nearly always qualifies or obfuscates his arguments into obscurity or outrageous contrivance. The margins of his newest book, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock, invite—in fact, insist on—the scribbled objections of inveterate Hitchcockians of almost any camp.

Subtitled The Plain Man’s Hitchcock, the book is both exhilarating and exasperating: exhilarating because it is the most complete and ambitious critical examination yet of Hitchcock’s entire body of work, and bids fair to become a definitive source for future Hitchcock criticism; exasperating because in more than 400 pages it never manages to become what it could have been. For one thing, it is hardly a “Plain Man’s Hitchcock,” since the facts on Hitchcock’s life and work, together with a good but simplistic summary of all previous Hitchcock commentary, are confined to two prefatory chapters; the specific analysis of the films, which comprise nearly 350 pages of the text, are neither comprehensive nor—even in the attempt—definitive.

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In Black and White: The World of Entertainment

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

THE WORLD OF ENTERTAINMENT. By Hugh Fordin. Doubleday. 566 pages. $15.00.

By packaging and presentation, Hugh Fordin’s book is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The serious student of film might easily pass it by, seeing only the pseudo-MGM logo and the boldly lettered subtitle: HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST MUSICALS. You have to look closer to see the real subject, in a smaller italic: The Freed Unit at MGM. I begin with this caveat emptor in an attempt to convince even people who hate film musicals that Fordin’s chronicle of MGM in its glory and subsequent decline is important reading for us all.

A while back a friend suggested “Arthur Freed as auteur” as a potential book or thesis title. The comment was somewhat facetious, but it underlined a curious fact: not only are most film-lovers unaware of Freed’s huge influence on Band Wagon, Silk Stockings, Singinin the Rain, and the 40-odd other films produced by his unit, but the very roles of producer and production unit have been little studied by film historians, much less commented on by theorists and critics. A producer is only a producer, one might say, but a good director is an auteur.

The World of Entertainment benefits greatly from this seemingly unglamorous nature of its subject. Since Freed and others like him are decidedly non-mythic figures—and even more so their “stables” of writers, musicians, and so on—Fordin has not felt obligated to delve too deeply into biography or motivation. He gives us a narrative of film production itself as a process, as evolved in Freed’s “royal family of Hollywood.”

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Book Review: ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend’

Given a spare moment, John Wayne played chess. And bridge, and poker, and backgammon. And how about another round of drinks for everybody at the end of a long day of shooting? Anything to be doing something, and not be by himself.

The image of Wayne as someone who craved activity and shunned introspection is one of the strongest—and somehow most poignant—impressions to emerge from John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman’s exemplary biography. The Duke’s restlessness drums through the book, and while the man does not come across as unhappy, he does seem chased by a need to keep working, to keep proving himself, and (surprisingly) to pay his bills. On the last point, Wayne was generous to a fault, carried a load of alimony and child care, and was ill-advised on business deals.

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In Black & White: Nashville

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

NASHVILLE. Bantam Books (paperback), illustrated. No pagination. $2.25.

On the spine it says “Robert Altman’s Nashville.” On the cover it says “Robert Altman’s Award-Winning Nashville, with an Introduction by Joan Tewkesbury.” On the title page, it says “Nashville, an Original Screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury.” This new and inviting little pocket-size is actually none of those things. It’s well known that Altman’s Nashville was about twice its present length before cutting, and this. book is way too tight to have been the “original screenplay.” It’s not a shooting script, either, because much of the dialogue is summarized in the directions, and too much is present in these pages that couldn’t have been known before the time of the actual shooting (for example, this book has the Monday night scene between Sueleen Gay and Wade, with no hint of the reported intention of the original screenplay that was to have her commit suicide). Yet the book isn’t simply a transcript of the film, either, because it does contain some dialogue and a lot of description that were not used in the film. What we have here, then, is not entirely Altman’s Nashville, and not entirely Tewkesbury’s.

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In Black & White: B Movies

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

‘B’ MOVIES. By Don Miller. Curtis Books. 350 pages. $1.50.
KINGS OF THE Bs. Edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn. Dutton. 561 pages. $6.95.

“If some bright new critic should awaken the world to the merits of Joseph Lewis in the near future,” Andrew Sarris once wrote, “we will have to scramble back to his 1940 record: Two-Fisted Rangers, Blazing Six-Shooters, Texas Stagecoach, The Man from Tumbleweeds, Boys of the City, Return of Wild Bill, and That Gang of Mine. Admittedly, in this direction lies madness.”

Sarris was referring to Lewis’ days as a director of B movies on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row,” and, as he later noted, Lewis has been “discovered,” and so those seemingly forgotten B movies from 1940 are marked by auteurists and cultists for future research. And perhaps it is a form of madness that auteurists or anyone else should want to seriously examine the low-budget films turned out as program fillers on Hollywood’s production lines. For there is little indication so far that this aspect of Hollywood’s history deserves fuller appreciation, and the films themselves have been mostly unavailable since the last great splurge of B movies on television.

But the Poverty Row films of Lewis, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Andre DeToth, Anthony Mann and others loom as tantalizing examples of talent and inspiration triumphing over limited means. These directors gained recognition of one sort or another and went on from the Bs to bigger budgets and better things. But has their later success given their B movies a visibility not granted so far to worthy B directors who never graduated to heftier budgets? At present, we have little way of knowing. Felix Feist, for example, is a director about whom next to nothing has been written, but my own chance encounter with The Devil Thumbs a Ride (RKO, 1947) had sufficient appeal to make him a subject for further research of my own. Similarly, Black Angel (Universal, 1946) and a Sherlock Holmes entry like The Scarlet Claw are enough to indicate that Roy William Neill is a director worthy of attention.

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In Black & White: The New Wave

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

THE NEW WAVE. By James Monaco. Oxford University Press. 372 pages. $15.95.

The French New Wave is the richest single “trend” in the cinema of the second half of this century, and the only aspect of film history that presently seems to have much relevance to the muddled movie art of the 1970s. It may also be the last significant “national” period in our increasingly internationalized film world. Also, it just may be as big a part of “the problem”—of contemporary movies—as it is of “the solution.” But none of this, it turns out, is especially important in James Monaco’s new book.

Monaco’s The New Wave is really a book about Truffaut and Godard with chapters on Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette. The author’s version of la nouvelle vague omits Resnais, Varda, Derny, Malle, Rozier and other relevant figures, and limits itself to what is really the Cahiers du Cinéma branch of the New Wave. All five of Monaco’s directors are former Cahiers critics, and Monaco is especially interested in the ways in which their films take a critical approach to the nature of film language. The result is, at least in part, a book about movies-as-film-criticism—all the more so since Monaco devotes considerable space to the directors’ declared intentions for their film work.

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In Black & White: Visionary Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]

VISIONARY FILM. By P. Adams Sitney. Oxford University Press. 452 pages. $13.95.
ABSTRACT FILM AND BEYOND. By Malcolm LeGrice. The MIT Press. 160 pages. $12.50.
THE CUBIST CINEMA. By Standish D. Lawder. New York University Press. 265 pages. $11.75 (paperback).
THE ESSENTIAL CINEMA. Edited by P. Adams Sitney. New York University Press. 380 pages. $20 (paperback $8.95).
A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE CINEMA. The American Federation of the Arts. 176 pages. $5.95 (paperback).
STRUCTURAL FILM ANTHOLOGY. Edited by Peter Gidal. British Film Institute / New York Zoetrope. 140 pages. $2 (paperback).
COVER TO COVER. By Michael Snow. New York University Press. No pagination. $12.50 (paperback).

It’s not possible for me to give as fully authoritative a critique of these books as I would like—and that, as it happens, has a lot to do with my calling attention to them here. By and large, these volumes are concerned with films whose circulation and accessibility have not matched the critical interest which they have generated in print. Most of these films qualify as “underground” or “experimental” in a system of distribution and exhibition wherein the “mainstream” is limited almost exclusively to feature-length narrative films. I am perhaps as guilty as the next reviewer of concentrating on feature films with comparatively wide audience appeal, and yet for some time now I’ve found it rather odd that our views of film art and its history place so much emphasis on feature films and so little on short films and nonnarrative movies. Or, to focus the issue a little closer to the objects of this review: how is it that the American feature film, however rich and engaging, has inspired no book comparable to Sitney’s on “The American Avant-Garde”? and how is it that Sitney’s avant-garde, such a rich and engaging subject, can be such a dim entity for what I assume is the majority of even the most serious moviegoers? and how is it that the more radical forms of modernism seem to have less acceptance in film than in any other art form? Answers to these questions might embrace a variety of habits, assumptions, and circumstances. But the very existence of these books suggests that the “avant-garde” may be much harder to ignore in the future, particularly with respect to American and British cinema.

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In Black & White: The Girl in the Hairy Paw

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

THE GIRL IN THE HAIRY PAW: King Kong as Myth, Movie, and Monster. Edited by Ronald Gottesman and Harry Geduld. Foreword: Rudy Behlmer. Layout and Design: Anthony Basile. An Avon Books “Flare” Edition. Paperbound, coffeetable size. 286 pages, illustrated. $5.95.

A browser’s delight, this paperbound first printing has much to recommend it, but not without qualification. The Girl in the Hairy Paw, whose cover blurb calls it “a documentary study of King Kong,” combines the multicritical anthology approach of the “Focus” series with interesting archaeology into the origins of the film, and with the visual appeal of the better coffeetable editions—a sort of Citizen Kong Book. Virtually every aspect of the film is covered: an examination of the origin in myth and literature of the ape’s representation of the bestial side of man, humankind’s physical aggressiveness and sexual lust; studies of the literary precursors of the film (Jonathan Swift, Madame Leprince de Beaumont, H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Edgar Wallace are all proposed as direct influences); the question of authorship of the actual screenplay (Edgar Wallace’s role is generally minimized in favor of Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Willis O’Brien, but Mark Bezanson presents an article in which he describes and quotes from a Wallace draft of the original screenplay, of which none of the others seems to have been aware, but which includes scenes found in the finished film); the process of model animation; sound dubbing; Robert Fiedel’s excellent reassessment of Max Steiner’s “corny” soundtrack score; and an anthology of the film’s influence on popular myth, including a number of parodies and cartoon recreations of the giant ape. Included are items as diverse as the magnificent storyboard drawings of Willis O’Brien (which alone are worth the price of the volume), several critical articles (most previously anthologized), Fay Wray’s reminiscences, Arnold Auerbach’s interview with Kong in retirement, Bob Newhart’s monologue of the rookie night watchman in the Empire State Building on that night of nights, Mad magazine’s famous lampoon of the film, and reproductions of posters, stills, cartoons, comic book pages, advertisements, and magazine covers using the Kong motif. The one additional thing the book’s concept seems to have called for is a printing of the film’s shooting script. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been included, nor does it seem to have occurred to the editors to do so, since they never even mention the possibility.

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In Black & White: Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

BIG BAD WOLVES: Masculinity in the American Film. By Joan Mellen. Pantheon. 368 pages. $12.95.

If memory serves, Professor Joan Mellen is not a fan of Pauline Kael’s, but the two ladies have things in common. Both have the (fortunately) rare gift of being simultaneously very readable and wildly wrongheaded, so that the reader is forever being placed in the bizarre situation of flinging their books down in rage and then hastily picking them up and reading on. Neither simply puts forward an idea or argument; instead, the reader is subjected to a nonstop harangue, with no quarter given anyone who might occasion their dislike. Passing off this constant shrilling as serious critical analysis is profoundly annoying.

Big Bad Wolves has a good and timely subject. “Manhood” has, after all, been one of Hollywood’s permanent themes, and with sexual roles being the subject of much debate over the last decade or so, it is interesting to consider how far, and in what ways, the movie industry has contributed either to understanding sexual mores or to distorting concepts of what “being a true man” is all about. Leslie Fiedler’s books have occasionally touched on the movies, and no one can have failed to notice the buddies syndrome which has been the most obvious preoccupation of American movies over the last ten years (not that it was exactly absent from them before that), so a study of “masculinity in the American film”, especially from a woman’s viewpoint, should have been pretty interesting. Alas, Professor Mellen’s tome has set back the cause of common sense about sexual roles by quite a few centuries. In attacking the male grossness and sexual fascism that she regards as typifying the Hollywood product, she is as inaccurate and underhand as the films she despises most.

Roughly, her idea is that the masculinity of characteristic male superstars like Wayne, Eastwood, Redford, Gable, et al. in fact epitomises a violence and brutality that pervade American culture. Such heroes as these, she argues, justify male domination and the perception of women as fickle, shallow, flighty creatures who lack real identity and intelligence. They are also deeply conformist and reactionary, they secretly dread impotence and disguise this fear with macho narcissism, and very often their putting-down of women goes so far as to become hatred of the sex, which in turn makes their idealising of male friendship latent (or not-so-latent) homosexuality. Not that the Prof is against gays – far from it, she claims. But she feels that this hidden form of homosexuality is dishonest and hypocritical, especially as it goes hand-in-hand with a paranoid loathing of overtly homosexual people. The virtues of tolerance, gentleness, generosity and kindness give way to acts of brutality that corrupt and stunt fulfillment. In short, she says, “in seeking to entertain us, movies in a very real sense have exacerbated our pain.”

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In Black & White: Vampire Cinema / How To Read a Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

THE VAMPIRE FILM. By Alain Silver and James Ursini. A.S. Barnes & Co.; The Tantivy Press. 238 pages. Illustrated. $10.
THE VAMPIRE CINEMA. By David Pirie. Crown Publishers: Crescent Books. 176 pages. Illustrated. $7.98.

Two recent books on vampire movies, both apparently bidding to become the definitive source on the subject, actually emerge as complementary: the inadequacies of one are the strengths of the other.

David Pirie’s The Vampire Cinema demands respect at very first glance. A green-fleshed, imposing figure of a caped vampire from Jean Rollin’s Requiem pour un Vampire glares at us from a tombstone-shaped frame, centered on a background of blood red, threatening us moviegoers and movie-book buyers with the (intended?) ambiguity of the book’s title. Unlike most coffeetable books, this one has a text every bit as good and exciting as its pictures: Pirie’s writing, except for a few grammatical eccentricities, is literate, sharp, economic, and filled with insight. The illustrations, many in color, are selected, arranged, and reproduced with the greatest integrity, reflecting Pirie’s insistence upon the centrality of landscape and milieu to the vampire film, and with a profound respect for the fact that the pictures, and their layout, carry much of the burden of the book. They are there to be looked at, studied, their captions read—not just to dazzle the eye, decorate a page, or fill up space. Alice’s rhetorical “What is the use of a book without pictures?” is particularly relevant in the case of books on film, where recourse to composition, uses of color, light, and landscape are so crucial. Unhappily, Pirie is ultimately more concerned with theme and genre than with the specific cinematic techniques so many of these pictures exemplify, and that is one of the few inadequacies in his book.

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Like Dracula: David Thomson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

No event exists without the process by which it is apprehended and understood. It is irrelevant and impossible to refer it to an absolute standard like realism because the means of measurement cannot be extricated from the observation. The relationship between the real and the surreal is not distinct but blurred
David Thomson, Movie Man

The cinemas alone stayed open, twinkling with lights and turning the night into dark velvet. The cinema comes to life with dark—like Dracula.
—David Thomson, America in the Dark

It all begins in the dark. This is a point of crucial poetic and philosophic importance for David Thomson; he is obsessed with the fact that the delicate interplay of light and dark images on the screen, as produced by film and projector, is possible only after a room has been completely darkened and a shaft of light sent streaking across that room to illuminate the screen. Illumination occurs elsewhere. For the adolescent David Thomson, sitting in a cinema in South London, it strikes him while watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The realization that an intelligence guiding the camera was commenting on movie-viewing itself—a man sitting in the dark, watching people move in a box—was a stimulating experience, and Thomson works with the tangled mesh of art, life, observation, and participation in his three books Movie Man (1967), A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), and America in the Dark: Hollywood and the Gift of Unreality (1977). The very private relationship he maintains with films, even when he expands his notions to include theories and pronouncements on all society, is passionate and idiosyncratic (need I add, subjective?). Thomson refuses to be pinned down or to wear a label; humanist, auteurist, structuralist, whateverist, he remains doggedly an individual, exploring his personal contact with movies—with prejudices, usually acknowledged, but always with a real determination to get at the roots of the power that has hold of him: cinema.

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